Asia: the land of opportunity?

iStock_000008356261_XXXLarge_PPThere are many opportunities for Australian vets, and for Australian-trained vets, in Asia. But if you’re going to make the move, it’s important to know how to do it right. Chris Sheedy reports

Four years after graduating from the University of Queensland in 1980, Dr Shane Ryan accepted a position with a vet practice in Singapore. Five years later he established his own practice, the Companion Animal Surgery. Today that business is one of Singapore’s largest and best respected vet clinics, open 24 hours with 24 staff, including nine fully licensed vets and seven vet technicians.

Having spent several years as the president of the Singapore Veterinary Association, Dr Ryan is now the president of the Federation of Asian Veterinary Associations and vice-president of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association. So, he knows a thing or two about the veterinary industry in Asia.

“In Singapore, we now have a large number of Australian-trained veterinarians. Not necessarily Australian veterinarians, but Australian-trained,” Dr Ryan says. “When I first went to Singapore, there weren’t many. Vets were more likely to seek training in the UK, for cultural and historic reasons. Over the following 15 to 20 years, there was a big shift to Australia thanks to convenience and money. The Australian education system was not only perceived as high quality, but it was less expensive.

“Australian vets have typically been very popular in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia—the old British Commonwealth territories. We’re also finding they are being a little bit entrepreneurial and are going into places like China. But now in territories such as South-east Asia, as veterinary services have matured, those local markets haven’t needed as many expats. So, you still see some Australian vets, but probably not the percentages we’ve see in the past.”

Where demand is increasing, Dr Ryan says, is in areas of specialisation, whether it be related to small animal, large animal or academia, but particularly in relation to companion animals.

“We have very small numbers of recognised specialists and there is a demand for them, particularly in companion animal medicine. This may be simply because that’s where the money is,” he explains. “The urbanised middle classes of South-east Asia and East Asia have emerged with new-found wealth. They want to spend money on better services. So if you’re a specialist-trained veterinarian, there is certainly work for you.”

Dr Mark Lawrie, now general manager Asia Pacific for RxWorks, graduated as a vet from the University of Sydney in 1983 and, like Dr Ryan, has also spent his fair share of time in the Asian market. His current role means he sees the industry from a different perspective, and in the past nine months, he has visited Malaysia three times as well as Singapore, Thailand, and Manila and Cebu in the Philippines, plus numerous journeys around Australia. Having also served for 15 years as the chief veterinarian of the RSPCA, Dr Lawrie’s overview of veterinary medicine at home and abroad offers a unique insight into opportunities.

“In South and East Asia, there is rising pressure on the profession and on universities to increase the quality of veterinarians, and there is much strategic work that has already been done,” says Dr Lawrie.

“You certainly need to develop a relationship with somebody who can guide you through all the intricacies and hurdles.” Dr Shane Ryan, Federation of Asian Veterinary Associations president

“There are also a lot of Australian vets who take up various jobs in Asia. There are a number of different animal welfare organisations for wildlife and dog control programs, as well as vets in more traditional practices and industry roles. Then there are senior Australian veterinarians who work in high level programs with FAO [Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN] and OIE [World Organisation for Animal Health], working on issues such as bird flu, epidemiological management and rabies.”

Dr Lawrie highlights opportunities in academia, clinical work, voluntary work and in the research and treatment/prevention of emergent diseases. For veterinarians looking to experience other cultures, Asia could well be the land of opportunity.

But before you pack your bags, first do some research around the practicalities of the situation.

“Asian nations have developed, or want to develop, their own capabilities locally,” Dr Lawrie says. “So, there are opportunities for Australian graduates, and the expat grads who come from overseas then return after being educated in Australia. Having said that, you really need to spend some time in Asia to become more attuned to the opportunities.

“There has traditionally been demand in Hong Kong and Singapore, then there’s also emerging demand in Malaysia, India, Thailand and the Philippines. But how much are you going to earn when you’re there? In some areas, it’s difficult to find high-quality vets because they can earn a lot more somewhere else.”

Don’t simply consider Asia as somewhere you can expand your current business by splitting your time between Australia and the other territory. It takes a lot more commitment than that, explains Dr Ryan.

“You have to be on the ground full-time from the beginning,” he says. “This is very important. If you’re selling your qualifications or your expertise as an Australian, the clients and other veterinarians need to see you and get to know you. They need to know that you are indeed as good as you say you are. You need to earn your respect and develop a rapport within the veterinary community.

“Sometimes we have the unfortunate case where people come in and basically say, ‘I’m the specialist. I’m from overseas and I know what I’m doing.’ This alienates the veterinary community. So, you need to get there, learn the culture, learn how it all fits together, and do what you do very well.”

Finally, Dr Ryan says, never consider opening a vet practice in an Asian nation without bringing a local partner on board, or at least developing a relationship with a local expert. Dr Ryan is looking at opening a clinic in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh and is practising what he preaches.

“You certainly need to develop a relationship with somebody who can guide you through all the intricacies and hurdles in various countries,” Dr Ryan says.

“I’ve been helping out the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh as they develop a new Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. They have very little in the way of facilities so we decided we would set up a clinic and use it as a teaching hospital. It saves them money and time and is also hopefully a good business decision, and they help me develop that business along the way.”

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